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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Watching an Australian A-League game with Sydney FC’s ultras

Unless you’re thinking about an oval ball, Australia is probably not the first country that comes to mind when you’re talking about “football”. Maybe if you were eagerly following the drifting careers of Jack Rodwell, Carl Jenkinson or Joe Lolley, the A-League might have been on your radar, but chances are, the “soccer” Down Under would pass you by.

That changed in August 2023 — in Australia with the rise of the Matildas, and in England with the emergence of Ange Postecoglou at Tottenham Hotspur.

Australia is taking soccer seriously. So seriously that the younger generations call it football, not to be confused with ‘footy’, the term usually reserved for one of their national sports, Aussie rules. It is on the rise. Average attendances are up from last year but still not quite what they were pre-pandemic. The women’s game appears to have had a mini boost from the World Cup staged in the country last July and August. Additionally, there was the announcement that a ‘B-League’ would be launched in 2025, creating a second tier that will include Postecoglou’s former side, South Melbourne.

However, with every hurdle cleared, another larger one stops the game’s development in its tracks. The inaugural ‘Unite’ round has just taken place, where every team from both the men’s and women’s leagues play in Sydney over one weekend. It is Australian soccer’s answer to rugby league’s ‘Magic Weekend’. Three stadiums, 24 teams, one city. Unfortunately, it was a long way off magical. The total attendance in Sydney for the 12 fixtures was under 48,000 and has led to reported staff cuts of 50 per cent, most of which are expected to take place in the A-League’s digital and content arm.

You might be thinking, “Who cares?” or, “The standard is so poor of course no one is attending.” Well, The Athletic is here to tell you exactly what it is like to be at an A-League match and, by the end of this article, you might find yourself wanting to take in a game, too.

In March 2023, The Athletic followed an Arsenal game from the perspective of their ultras — no sniggering, please. It recorded in great detail how the rows of young men in black T-shirts camped behind the goal were conducted in unison by one man and one drummer, both with their backs to the game unaware of events on the pitch. Their chanting ignored anything that occurred on the field of play and was purely there to push their team to greater things.

Why do I bring this up? Well, that is exactly what happens at Sydney FC.

We arrive at the Allianz Stadium, home of Sydney FC, rugby union’s NSW Waratahs, and rugby league’s Sydney Roosters, with three clear objectives: enjoy the game against Western United, get a scarf and enjoy a pint while watching top-flight football, a true rarity for us Brits.

Three of us go: one in an Ipswich Town shirt, one in a France shirt, and one in an England shirt — risky. As we reach the thoroughfare of Moore Park Road, we see Manchester City and Manchester United shirts walking together. There is one kid in an Al Nassr shirt with ‘Ronaldo 7’ on the back, while his brother wears a Lionel Messi Inter Miami top. Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid. Big team, you name it, you see it. Oh, and of course, plenty of Matildas, Socceroos and Sydney shirts, too.

A pint by the pitch – something you cannot do at Premier League grounds (Abi Paterson/The Athletic)

Straightaway, we queue for the merch. Two “We are Sydney” bucket hat purchases later and three schooners at ‘happy hour’ prices — there is cheaper alcohol before kick-off to draw the crowds — we are ready to find our place in The Cove, home to Sydney FC’s ultras. It is a safe standing area, general admission. Find your place, but how close do you dare get to the group of young men in black?

The first thing we note on entering The Cove is how young the boys, and it is mostly boys, in black are. The second thing is the words on the back of those black shirts: “Hated and Proud”. The rest of the league likes to sing, “F*** off Sydney FC”. It does make you question why the powers that be decided to hold the Unite round in Sydney.

Before kick-off, there is general chatter, no chanting or any real noise. The man next to us notes the Ipswich shirt among us and, in a thick Aussie accent, says he is also a fan — selecting his team in the 1998-99 Premier League season “to be different”. He knows more about the current side than the proclaimed fan with us.

As the team line-up is announced and The Cove’s leader, the ‘capo’, beckons the troops with his megaphone, each player gets his own “ole”. The loudest is reserved for Joe Lolley, the former Nottingham Forest winger. The megaphone feels like more of a hindrance throughout the match — can anyone ever hear anything that is said out of those plastic speakers? The capo and drummer have a platform built just for them. From there, they lead us. “S! F! C!” is the first chant — easy enough to pick up.

Things get a little trickier with “We are Sydney (clap), the famous Sydney FC (clap), we’re from the harbour city (clap), the boys in blue from Moore Park Road”, but we get there. Unfortunately, so do Western United, who have had a free header and found the back of the net. The teams meet while placed 10th and 11th in the A-League.

Going a goal down does not deter The Cove and instead, we are urged to sing louder and louder. Eventually, Sydney equalise. Beer flies everywhere like we are at BoxPark, guttural roars sound and scarves are wheeled around our heads. “Fabio” is the call, “GOMES” the response, in recognition of our scorer.

Unlike Arsenal’s Ashburton Army, The Cove will sing about individuals — but only when they score. You have to earn your right to a song. Otherwise, it is back to urging the team on as a whole.

Now, if you were hoping for a Michael Cox-esque review of an A-League game, I’m afraid you have come to the wrong place. Instead, we were transfixed by our ringleader with the mullet, fascinated by how he so easily held the attention of those in black and had those of us on the outskirts ready to fall in line with his every beck and call. Then he demands we split down the middle and face each other — like that scene in Barbie when the Kens are fighting. We are instructed to out-chant each other until his raised arm drops and the baying sides are unleashed to run into each other mosh-pit style — or at least as much as you can within the confines of safe standing. It is hugely entertaining to watch and feels a little like a zoo.

The members of The Cove have their banners with various versions of the Sydney crest and one with a phone crossed out on it. You will focus your attention on the match and the match alone.

The drum beats continuously throughout. There is a change in rhythm but never a cease in the song.

At some stage throughout all of this, Sydney score again. Lolley is the most popular name on the backs of shirts and by the end, he will certainly have illustrated why that is the case. A shot from outside the box finds the bottom corner. The goalkeeper should have done better, but who cares? It’s a goal and the chorus of, “Ain’t nobody like Joe Lolley” strikes up and we have a big old sing-song leading into the break.

Joe Lolley, 31, joined Sydney FC last year after four and a half years at Nottingham Forest (Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

At half-time, it is quiet beyond the babble of voices assessing that first half and recharging the batteries for the second half. The stand opposite us is nearly empty. One of the issues with Australia being quite a big country is that the away fans are highly unlikely to take a flight to watch a match.

The second half kicks off and Sydney pick up where they left off as Rodwell — formerly of Everton, Manchester City and England and now sporting cornrows — finds the net. It’s pandemonium. More beer drenches us. It’s 3-1! “We’re going to win the league” is sarcastically shouted from the stands behind us. Not a chance, mate.

If you think standing for a full 90 minutes of football is perhaps a little much, The Cove is not for you because not only are we chanting in our gruffest voices throughout, but the capo next to us tells us to duck down — just like a music artist might at a gig. Despite it hampering our view, we obey, only leaping up when commanded.

There is one more chant that tickles this British writer. As you might expect, there is a rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, the biggest city and capital of Victoria. We sing a song that lists out the hated teams across the A-League, with the chorus rounding up on a line that an evil Barney the purple dinosaur would be proud of, “I hate, you hate, we hate Victorians”. We laughed. Sorry.

On the pitch, Lolley scores again in stoppage time and it is the least he deserves. He is the best player on the pitch by a distance and probably should not be playing at this level. He will be doing so for a while longer, though, having this week signed a fresh two-year deal. “I love being here and living in this wonderful city,” he said.

The full-time whistle goes, but our work is not yet done. We continue to sing until the team comes over to thank us for our effort (you’re welcome) and, joining hands in a line, we “ole” together celebrating the victory.

The songs end and we recognise our exhaustion from singing non-stop, the ups and downs and the goals. Our voices are hoarse but our hearts are full at the end of an unexpectedly entertaining time.

And that is the word. We were entertained. Not by the football on the pitch per se, but by our fully immersive concert. Sydney FC, The Cove, you have me. The Athletic will be back, bucket hat on, ready to take part even more heartily than before.

(Top photo: Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

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